Why Adults Shouldn't Skip Vaccines

04/13/2015 08:15 am ET | Updated Apr 16, 2015

By Chai Woodham for U.S. News

Often, the conversation about vaccines is centered on children -- as vaccines are still believed by some to cause autism, though studies have disproved this link -- but the recent resurgence of measles, whooping cough and other diseases has highlighted the value of vaccinations for adults as well.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 644 measles cases in 2014, the largest number of confirmed cases since the disease was officially eliminated from the U.S. in 2000. And in 2012, 48,277 people developed whooping cough, the highest number seen since 1955.

“It is extremely important for adults to be current with their vaccines,” says Dr. Richard Smith, an infectious disease specialist and director of infection control at TriCity Medical Center in Oceanside, California. “By doing so, not only are they protecting themselves from disease but also protecting other adults and children that may be at risk.”

Most adults should discuss the following eight vaccines with their doctor.

MMR vaccine. MMR stands for measles, mumps and rubella, and the consequences of these viral diseases can be great.

Measles -- so contagious you can get it just by being in a room with an infected person -- can cause brain damage, seizures or even death, and can make pregnant women vulnerable to spontaneous miscarriage and premature labor.

“Adults with measles are at an increased risk of mortality,” says Dr. Chesda Eng, a primary care physician at St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group in Tustin, California. According to the CDC, more than 175 people in the U.S. -- many of whom were unvaccinated -- have acquired measles since the start of the year.

Mumps was once the leading cause of meningitis (an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord) and hearing loss in the U.S. before the vaccine’s arrival. It can also lead to sterility in men. Serious complications of mumps are seen more frequently in adults than children, Eng says.

Adults with rubella, also known as German measles, tend to suffer more than children and can develop brain infections and bleeding problems, while pregnant women are at risk for miscarriage or severe birth defects such as hearing and vision loss, mental retardation and heart defects.

Smith suggests that folks born after 1956 ages 18 and up get at least one dose of MMR vaccine, unless they can show that they have either been vaccinated or had all three diseases. Eng adds that adults who were given a killed vaccine or an unknown vaccine type between 1963 and 1967 should get revaccinated as the killed measles vaccine from this period was ineffective. Other recommended groups include college students, health care workers and international travelers.

There are, of course, exceptions. Those who should not get the vaccine include pregnant women or those considering getting pregnant within the next 28 days; people with compromised immune systems, including those who are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy for cancer or have HIV/AIDS; and folks who are allergic to any component of the vaccine or had a life-threatening reaction to a previous dose.

Tdap vaccine. Tdap protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough). Tetanus enters the body through a cut or scratch, while diphtheria and whooping cough spread through secretions from sneezing or coughing.

Tetanus, caused by poison-producing bacteria, can result in painful muscle tightening, particularly a locked jaw that can prevent a person from breathing or swallowing. Ten percent of people with tetanus die from the disease despite receiving medical care.

Diphtheria, another poison-producing bacterial disease that affects the respiratory system, causes a thick coating in the back of the throat, which can block a person’s airway and impair breathing. It can also lead to swelling of the heart muscle and possible heart failure. Other potential effects include paralysis, coma and death.

Whooping cough is a respiratory tract infection characterized by coughing -- sometimes so severe it can cause cracked ribs -- and choking that can last for weeks. Babies, who often get this bacterial disease from an adult, can suffer greatly, facing hospitalization and potential death if infected. Last year, more than 28,000 cases of whooping cough were reported to the CDC.

Adults 19 and older who have not received the vaccine should get it, along with all pregnant women. Subsequent tetanus doses should be administered at 10-year intervals throughout adulthood, Eng says.

“A person who has ever had a life-threatening allergic reaction after a previous dose of any diphtheria, tetanus or pertussis-containing vaccine, or has a severe allergy to any part of this vaccine, should not get the Tdap vaccine,” says Dr. Angela Tonozzi, system director of infection prevention for Wisconsin-based Aurora Health Care. The same can be said for folks who were in a coma or suffered from repeated seizures within seven days after a childhood dose of DTP or DTaP (vaccines that also fight tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis).

Shingles vaccine. Shingles, a painful rash and nerve disease, is triggered by the same virus that causes chickenpox and primarily affects adults over 50; in fact, experts say that after age 85, people have a 50-50 chance of getting it. According to the CDC, a million people in the U.S. get shingles every year.

A telltale symptom of shingles is a rash with fluid-filled blisters on one side of the face or body that will typically go away after seven to 10 days, though the attendant pain may not disappear so easily. In fact, shingles-induced pain can last for months or even years. Shingles can also affect a person’s hearing and may lead to blindness.

Everyone ages 60 and older should get the shingles vaccination, Tonozzi says. And while there are no official recommendations for adults in their 50s, Smith notes this group should discuss the risks and benefits of the vaccine with a health care provider.

A person who has ever had a severe allergic reaction to any component of the shingles vaccination should not get the shot, along with those taking certain medications or who have a weakened immune system due to such causes as cancer or HIV/AIDS. Pregnant woman and organ transplant patients should avoid it as well.

Pneumococcal vaccine. Starting in the nose and throat and moving to the ears or sinuses, this bacterial disease can lead to mild infections. But should it spread to other parts of the body, it can cause meningitis, bacteremia (infection of the bloodstream) and pneumonia. A person may suffer from hearing loss, brain damage and the possible loss of arms, legs and even life -- approximately 22,000 people a year die from pneumococcal disease.

“There are two vaccines now recommended: prevnar 13 and pneumovax 23,” Eng says. “Patients older than 65 should get both.” Anyone who might have a life-threatening allergic reaction to the vaccine should not.

Influenza vaccine. Influenza, or the flu, is a viral infection that can cause serious complications for older adults, leading to hospitalization or death. During a regular flu season -- which typically spans October to May -- about 90 percent of deaths occur in people ages 65 and older, Smith says. And according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, as many as 20 percent of Americans get the flu each year.

Everyone 6 months and up should get the influenza vaccine each year, which may be received through either a shot with the inactivated virus or a nasal spray containing live virus. Though, Eng warns, “immunocompromised patients, pregnant women, adults over 50 years old and anyone who has taken flu antiviral medication within the last 48 hours should not get the live-attenuated intranasal vaccine.”

Meningococcal vaccine. Meningococcal disease is the leading cause of bacterial meningitis. Symptoms such as fever, body aches, stiff neck and headaches can lead infected individuals to believe they have a really bad cold or flu, but the disease can progress rather quickly, killing an otherwise healthy person in less than two days. Severe complications can include strokes or seizures, loss of limbs, deafness and problems with the nervous system.

Along with those who travel internationally or who may have a damaged spleen or no spleen at all, “the meningococcal vaccine should be given to military recruits and college students,” Smith says -- typically those who live in overcrowded conditions. People who have a severe allergy to any component of the vaccine or who experienced a life-threatening reaction to a previous dose should not receive one.

Insurance plans cover the cost of some vaccines, which can be received at medical offices, workplaces, pharmacies, clinics and schools, for example.

“Vaccinations are recommended throughout our lifetime, not just at childhood,” Eng says. “Unfortunately we are seeing more adults with contagious diseases that could have been prevented with routine vaccinations. It’s very important for adults to be informed and current with their own vaccinations since they can reduce the risk of developing illnesses that could lead to serious complications and hospitalizations.”

All it takes is one simple conversation. “Talk to your doctor to make sure you understand which vaccines are needed and when,” Tonozzi says, and if they are safe for you.

Why Adults Shouldn't Skip Vaccines was originally published on U.S. News & World Report.

Suggest a correction